Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smashing Goals at The Huka XL

It was a pretty mild morning when I awoke at 4.30am to head to Taupo. I dutifully shoveled food into my mouth to fuel my weary body for a another day of racing. If I was being honest, I had felt pretty flat all week, which was to be expected for the time I had been spending on my bike, and the intensity, including cramming three races into the previous three weekends. I'm always hesitant to directly say to people that I'm not feeling good heading into a race. I think it's a cop-out... But I'm also not really in the business of fibbing, either, so when asked the inevitable question of "how are you feeling?" before the Huka XL, I responded "feeling a bit flat this week, but I'll just give it some and see where that gets me"... It was the truth, and realistically, is what I would do in any race... Give it some stick and at the end of the race, I can see where that pitches me against everyone else who was racing.

As I loaded myself and my bag into Dean's mobile disco (seriously, that guy has a car stereo worth more than his car), I was swallowed by the smooth bass undertones. As we traveled the highway towards Taupo, the sun began to drape it's glorious warm light across the landscape and it was weird how I felt like I was encased in a music video, the music playing a soundtrack to the sun's morning dance... So as I emerged from my cocoon in the back seat and onto the bustling streets of Taupo, it took me some time to readjust to my environment.

Registration done and dusted, and then time to figure out where all those damn numbers go that come in your race pack! I've never fully understood the helmet sticker, to be honest, but when I read the little blurb next to it, I discovered the helmet sticker was "so we can identify you in your photos"... I found it highly ironic that we would spoil a good photo by slapping a bright red sticker on our perfectly photogenic helmet... Nonetheless, I complied with their request. The other thing I noticed hadn't had a great deal of thought invested into was the new timing system, which consisted of a timing chip placed in a sticker that had to be wrapped around the seat post. Kudos to the organisers for investing in such a great system, but they clearly hadn't taken into account that there are many a mountain biker that run dropper posts or attach their spare tubes to the back of their seat post... Not to mention, for us shorties, the timing chip received some pretty gnarly buzz off the back wheel of an XS full suspension bike. Hopefully, next year, they might have a sticker attached to the back of the numberplate, or something similarly convenient, for those of us that choose to grace the dirt as opposed to the road.

By about a quarter to seven, I was waiting in the start chute with thousands of other riders. The Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge has really cemented itself as a truly iconic event on the riding calendar, and in such a short space of time, it's mountain biking brother, the Huka, has done the same. The atmosphere and buzz at the start line alone was enough to get your heart rate up. I entered the Huka XL this year, the elite category of the mountain biking event. I figured that seeing as I was a licensed rider, and it cost the same, I may as well. So here I was, with slightly overdone legs for the week, about to smash out another 80kms or so against some of the best riders in the country. The gun went, and we were off! The organisers had decided this year to run the Huka in reverse, starting with a largely wide fire trail section of track, and it was an excellent call for them to make. The change meant that there was minimal (if any) trail congestion at the beginning, which had been an issue in previous years. As such, I found myself alone very quickly. Everyone was able to set their own pace as they pleased right from the start, and a lot of the XL riders were super quick off the mark. I, on the other hand, struggled with my pace for the first half hour or so of my race. I just couldn't get into a rhythm or into a pace that I was comfortable with. That would all change as the race wore on, and I actually picked up quite a few places in the second half.

Probably about 10kms in, I had a steam train of three guys pull in behind me. They sat there for a kilometre or two and then pulled around me. I jumped on the back of them and it was probably exactly what I needed to get me into a good rhythm. I knew I could work hard and stay on the back and smash out a quick few kilometres, or I could suffer by myself at some abysmal pace. I chose the former. That was about half an hour in, and it set the tone well for the rest of my race. For the first 30-40kms, I punched out an average speed of over 20km/hr, which dropped significantly in the second half of the race as we tackled more singletrack. The Huka course is great fun, but hard work. There is a high proportion f singletrack and very little climbing for the distance (under 2,000m worth), which means that you tend to be working hard the whole time. I have always thoroughly enjoyed this race, and with the rebuilt trails post-logging, there were some real gems that we had the pleasure of riding.

I think the thing I will always remember most vividly about the Huka is that we climb Grinder twice. In the grand scheme of things, Grinder isn't a huge climb, but it certainly feels like it (especially on the second pass). And to reward you as you reach the top of your first ascent, you are presented with a $2 pink wrist band for your efforts... And the opportunity to do it all over again. I felt well-attuned to particular parts of the course that I had ridden in the first mid north island cup, and then particularly alienated by bits of trail I had never ridden before. I remember after my second pass of Grinder, disappearing into the forest again, and then coming out into a wide open space, with the trail benched into the edge of a cliff, and unexpected corners appearing in front of my wheel that would have incurred some pretty serious consequences if I had overshot them. All in all, the track was awesome. Even more awesome were the volunteers... It's so rare to come across volunteers who seem to have such an intimate knowledge of the track and who provide such concise and speedy direction to riders under pressure as they try to navigate their way through intersections.

I had started the day not expecting to podium, but hoping to crack the 5 hour mark, so when I shot past a sign that said "4km to go" at about 4 hours and 15 mins, I was stoked with the realisation that I was just about to completely smash the 5hour goal I had set myself. It soon became apparent that the sign placement had been a little overzealous, and we actually had about 10km to go, but in any case, I still smashed my target for the day, crossing the line in 4 hours and 48 minutes... A time that was quite reputable against a lot of the other elite females, which I was really happy with. The other thing I realised after I crossed the finish line was that I was a mere 15seconds behind my mate Sasha Smith. She explained to me how she had been able to see me for the last half hour (which I was entirely oblivious to!) and had her running scared, which was highly flattering. I came in 6th, and whilst I was super happy with knocking half an hour off my previous best time for the race, I must admit that having such a miniscule margin to 5th place had me analysing all the tiny things I could have done better... And I'm sure there was 15seconds in there somewhere!!! I was also stoked for Yeti teammate Sam Shaw who took out the mens elite category!

So now it's back into my usual working week to prepare for another weekend of racing coming up (4 hour on Waiheke this Saturday, and the final MNIC in Rotorua on Sunday... It's going to be great fun!!!)... But I must admit, I am really looking forward to the Huka again next year. I can't wait to smash my best time again... And make up that 15seconds!!!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Inaugural Taniwha - An Early Season Win!!!

Anyone who ever says any race is "easy" is either lying or wasn't riding hard enough. It could be argued that the inaugural Taniwha was an "easy" race... True that there was a solid block of road riding in there, and some fast fire trail, but it doesn't make the task of completing the race in the fastest time possible any easier... Just faster... And there was certainly a good chunk of steep climbing, some hike-a-bike sections, and numerous awkward switchbacks which required some technical prowess to conquer at any speed...
Photo by Jonathon Kennett

Before I launch into my enthusiastic story-telling of my day, I'd like to give a little foremention,  to Jonathon Kennett and Paul Charteris, who have been kind enough to let me steal some of their photos from the day to make this blog far more interesting than it otherwise would have been (you should also grab a copy of the Kennett Bros new publication "Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails"... Some excellent holidays in there!!!)

I must say that Total Sport are still the only event organiser I have come across that are game enough to attempt the logistics of a point-to-point race, and they do it pretty well, with relatively minimal inconvenience to the people riding it. Whilst having to attend registration the evening before the race to drop off your bike for delivery to the start line may not sound particularly appealing to all, I agree it is likely the most efficient way of doing it (if you don't have a generous friend available to drop you at the start on the morning of the race then meet you at the end)... So drop off my bike and register the night before is what I did, then I arrived at the finish line just before 6am and jumped on the bus with a bunch of other sleepy riders for the trip to the start line, and to be reunited with my beloved Ninja.

Photo by Jonathon Kennett

As the sun crept up higher in the morning sky, it became apparent what a stellar day we had ahead of us... Trails, racing, cool people and sunshine. After being reunited with The Ninja and making multiple "nervous pre-race" toilet stops, we stood in on a quick briefing and were on our way! A pack of about 100 riders smashed out a warp speed lap of the park vying for a good spot to head into the first section of singletrack. I was surprised as we reached the gate that took us to our first trail that I was sitting quite high up in the field overall, and my legs felt pretty good. The pea-gravel trail hugged the river at a gradient that just begged for some big ring action, so I chucked it in the big dog and gave it some stick. The fresh morning air had a noticeable bite in it, but I had elected for no vest or arm warmers because I knew it would turn into a roasting hot day (about 5 minutes after the race began, I was sure I had made the right choice!).
Photo by Jonathon Kennett

The trail at this point was devoid of many obstacles... But at speed, the loose gravel under our wheels was pretty treacherous. On numerous occasions, a straight section of trail would suddenly turn into a corner, where skidmarks and flattened shrubs were clearly seen from where a number of riders had overshot the corner (as I did myself on a couple of occasions). I positioned myself in a pretty good place up the pointy end of the field to start with, and as the trail wound it's way around, I would occasionally capture a glimpse of a female competitor, which would remind me not to relax and keep me on my toes!
Photo by Jonathon Kennett

Big ring alley eventually gave way to a rougher section of trail and saw us off our bikes up a series of steep, tight switchbacks. It was obvious in a number of places on the trail that the original design of the trail had been for walking. To be honest, the hike a bike didn't bother me and added a bit of an "adventure biking" element to the race. I think I would have been disappointed if it had just been gravel trail the whole way through!!! The course climbed steadily for the first 25km of the race, but it was over such a long distance that, asides from the occasional little pinch, it was quite a mellow gradient. As we exited the trail and onto the road, we were also faced with a headwind. This is one of the bugbears of point to point racing... If the wind is going in the wrong direction that day, you could spend the entire day battling into it... Throughout the race, there was probably a good 15-20km of road, and this was the only time I really noticed the headwind. I was lucky enough that when we popped out onto the road for the first time, there was another rider with me, and whilst I doubt my diminutive figure was much respite from the wind for him, he humored me and we worked together for a while, until we hit the trail again and he pulled away from me.
 Photo by Paul Charteris

As the trail wound it's way back towards the next road section, I was faced with a fork in the trail... And no markings... Post-race, this point was a topic of discussion, and it was only by chance that I guessed the right way (not before wasting 2-3minutes searching around for markers, though!)... Other riders hadn't been so lucky and inadvertently added a few kms onto their race. After popping back out onto the road, we then joined another trail and climbed back up and over to the river's edge again, tackling steps, narrow cliff-edge trails and traversing a spectacular swingbridge... I found a lot of the switchbacks on the trail quite awkward because they were tight and covered in loose gravel... It actually made descending some sections of the trail quite tough work on the upper body and core. The climbing got a lot more challenging in the second half of the race. It was also around here that I started coming across runners and riders from the other (shorter) categories in the event. Everyone was super friendly and very courteous, and I tried to be as polite as possible through taking in huge gasps of air. The scenery was breathtaking, too... And I would occasionally catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye and be temporarily distracted. I'd really love to come back and ride the trail again at a more leisurely pace with friends to take in the scenery!
Photo by Paul Charteris

The last 20km felt like the longest part of the race. I had been smashing myself the whole way and my body was starting to feel pretty sorry for itself. As the distance markers disappeared behind me, I finally came upon the last 4km of trail, which was some lovely, rooty singletrack that delivered us straight into the Whakamaru Christian Camp and the finish line. I sprinted in the last hundred metres or so to deliver my body across the finish line.The vibe was great at the finish... I just wish that they had done the prizegiving there as opposed to having to come back into Tokoroa at 6pm (hopefully they will change this next year?)
Photo by Paul Charteris

Indeed, the Taniwha was a tough day in the saddle for me, and not necessarily because the course was hard, but because I rode it hard, finishing the 85km in a personal best time of 4 hours 35 minutes for the win, 15min clear of the second placed female and tenth overall. The awesome thing about this is that it puts the race (or ride, if you prefer) within reach of a rider looking to conquer their first marathon distance mountain bike event, while the fast bunnies can smash themselves for a stab at glory. The Taniwha really does cater for a wide range of abilities and fitness levels and is certainly a worthwhile race to jump on, if not for any other reason than it lets you complete the beautiful Waikato River trail without the hassle of organising logistics for the point-to-point ride.

Photo by Paul Charteris

As far as the start of my season goes, I've been pretty happy to take a third place, second place and now a win, from three races... To be honest, my aim hasn't necessarily been to win races at this early point in the season. My intention has been to use these races as a way to train myself to suffer... So I go out as hard as I can and keep going hard until I just can't anymore... I work on looking after myself on course, paying attention to how different actions I take affect me (what I eat, how much I drink, how quickly I recover after climbing hard). I punish myself in a way that I probably wouldn't in training, and I think it's good to be able to understand how much suffering you can push your body through when you really set your mind to it. For example, I made the conscious decision to run one water bottle for this race. I knew it would be hot and I would need hydration, but I also knew it would be hot enough that I may not want a pack stuck to my back (or the extra weight associated with it), so I ran the one water bottle, and supplemented that by downing a cup of water at each aid station. The result was that it got me through the day quite comfortably, but I suffered quite badly in the following days, recovering much slower than I would have had I maintained my hydration throughout the race... And it really is a trade-off... If I was doing a multi-day race, I couldn't get away with that, but doing a one day race, maybe the benefits of doing that outweigh the need for an extended recovery period. It's nice to experiment with this stuff early in the season without consequence.

It all comes back to one thing I have said many times before though... The body is merely a vehicle for the mind to complete what it set out to achieve, so realistically, a determined mind in a fit body will achieve much more than a fit body on it's own... And following on from that is that the positive mind and a fit body in training will adapt much quicker to increased and sustained efforts to make the body even fitter, which then makes the mind more confident. Interesting stuff huh? What's in your head will always carry you far beyond the point when your body apparently renders itself useless...

Friday, November 9, 2012

MNIC 1 Taupo - A Rewarding Day at the Office

A crisp, clear morning greeted riders as I climbed out of my van at Craters of the Moon in Taupo on Sunday... It had been a long time since I had ridden here, and, like many of our working forests, recent harvesting had turned the area into something quite different to what I remembered. I rugged up in my new Endura jacket (lovely gear, by the way... but more on that later!) and headed to rego, handed over my twenty-five bucks and had a deep and meaningful conversation with the volunteers about how I would like to enter the open category as I was in denial of my "old fogey" status.

A quick warm up loop confirmed the tracks were running pretty fast, but the general consensus was that there was an apparent lack of any climbing of note. I've often had this debate with people who don't like climbing... That riding a trail that is devoid of climbs is actually much harder work, and today was no exception to this... We set off at race start and I punched out my first 12km lap in about 42 minutes... I was fast, but nowhere near fast enough to keep up with Fiona Macdermid. Open females were committed to 3 laps of the 12km course, which was quite long for a cross country race. The relative flatness of the course meant that I was on the hammer the whole time, and it showed in my data afterwards, where my average heart rate for the two hours sat within my anabolic threshold. But whilst the course was hard work, it was also great fun, and to be fair, it would not have done the course justice to ride it any slower. For the most part, we were negotiating our way through flowy corners and berms and floating over small flat top jumps. I worked hard, but I also had a great time, coming in second behind Fiona. For a trail that felt so flat, though, we still punched out a total of 750m of climbing!
I must admit that I enjoy cross country racing... Realistically, my endurance legs are probably not quite as fast as they need to be to stay up there with the best in the game, but it's interesting how much differently I can approach a shorter race, and then, throughout the course of the season, how long a "short" race becomes. For example, I was quite happy to ruin myself in this race because I knew it would be no more than a couple of hours, and in all honesty, it's kinda fun to have the opportunity to absolutely thrash myself as opposed to being required to push out a paced effort over time. Over the course of a season, a "short" race will go from being two hours long, to being four or five hours long. I find it fascinating how the body adapt to training efforts!

I was actually really stoked with my ride... I smashed out a hard, fast 36km, with an average speed of 17km/hr and I felt really comfortable on the bike (even though my lungs didn't!). I had an absolute blast! Thanks to the Taupo MTB Club!!!

Some other exciting bits and pieces from the rest of my week include:
* The discovery that the bridge between the Hemo Gorge track and Waipa Mill carpark has now being completed, making it a very feasible and more interesting route to the forest from town.
* Having my Italian buddy Matteo move here to Rotorua (that's right, the guy who managed my crew for 24 hour world champs)!
* Taking Matteo out to show him the trails with the dog and then spending more time looking for the lost dog in the forest than we actually spent riding trails (although I think Matteo was secretly pleased with the rest on the climb!)
* Enjoying a stunning afternoon road ride around the lakes, seeing my flatmate out and about and smiling and waving so that I looked like I was enjoying myself for all of 5 seconds whilst I smashed myself climbing the hill up Tarawera road.
* Giving away an awesome pair of Adidas Evil Eye sunglasses to Graeme Quay, one of our Yeti Tribe Gathering buddies who had the closest guess of how many metres I rode and climbed in this year's world champs (the correct answer is that I rode 287.95km and climbed 6923m!) 
* Beating a bunch of personal best times on a whole heap of trails in the forest this week.

As I also eluded at the start of my post to the fact that I'm enjoying some new kit, and I am really stoked to announce that Endura Clothing have come on board as part of my team. I've been eying off their gear for a while now... The range of clothing they have, the fit and the quality are all huge bonus points for me... So I was quite stoked when Nigel touched base with me and invited me to come on board (thanks Nigel!). I'm really looking forward to giving the gear a thrashing and then reporting back to everyone on it... So far, though, my fav piece of gear is the Women's Singletrack baggy shorts...

Looking forward to a good weekend at the Taniwha! 80km of trails and hopefully some sunshine!